Listen for the Story
“I need to listen with my ears!” is what a colleague exclaimed when we were discussing an upcoming, and potentially difficult conversation she was scheduled to have with a co-worker the next day. As a part of this conversation, they had to agree upon whose recommendation they would select to present to leadership… both were good, just very different.
My colleague and I stopped, reflected, and then laughed for a few minutes. I think mostly because we were struck by the simplicity of the solution, and also by the realization of how it is sometimes hard to even consider listening first. After much of our own discussion, we decided my colleague should ask as many questions about her co-worker’s recommendation as possible, and then really, really listen to what her co-worker says. The goal was to simply understand more fully her co-worker’s point of view, and have an honest, meaningful, and thoughtful conversation about how to best move forward.
The ability to listen with curiosity is at the center of leading others with heart. One vitally important ingredient to inspiring others is to listen for their stories. We frequently hear about the value of storytelling and how the most effective leaders are able to tell compelling stories that resonate with others. We believe it is just as important for leaders to invite the stories of others, and really listen to understand the story being told.
Early in my career, I remember heading into my weekly meetings with my manager and launching immediately into our “project list” for the week, armed with recommendations and solutions to discuss. However, she would ignore me and instead ask about my weekend. What? What is this? What is she talking about? My weekend? Doesn’t she realize how much is on our “to do” list right now? I could not believe she would even consider spending time on our personal lives when we were responsible for transforming the organization.
Reluctantly, I began to share more and more, and I also started observing her with others, and recognized this was how she engaged with everyone, which resulted in her being extremely relatable, incredibly personable, and unbelievably caring as a leader.
A very valuable revelation was coming into view for me.
My manager was asking and listening for my story. She was being curious and looking for the context of me. And, she was teaching me about empathy by genuinely trying to connect meaningfully. She knew I was equipped to do the job well and was ready to help to continue building my technical skills. However, and as importantly, she also knew the more she knew about me and my story, the better she would be able to support me, and ultimately support my growth into an empathetic and inspirational leader myself.
While I recognize these are lighthearted examples of how listening for stories help us see each other more clearly, doing this well is imperative right now… the stakes are very high.
My heart heavy as I watch and experience what is happening in the world, whether it is the political division over covid-19, or the continued brutality and racism against people of color. I just wonder how much better we all could be as people and as leaders, today, if we just took time to learn each other’s stories and fully recognize that we are all valuable and people worthy of love on this planet.
I recently watched a talk by Charles Eisenstein that asks a very simple question, “What is it like to be you?” This really resonated with me. I believe if this question is asked from the heart with good intent, and the response is truly listened to and heard without judgment, it can bring us to truth, healing, reconciliation, and much needed policy and system change. These are all so critically important.
For me, as a Black woman in America, I feel like my life is not promised to me or people who look like me, and can be taken at any moment by someone who hasn’t asked for my story, and perhaps doesn’t care to know. And, I also have hope in the future as people I know – family, friends, coworkers, colleagues – along with people I don’t know, are pushing for the policies and systems that will lead to an antiracist America. And, an integral part of this change will be asking for stories of others, and sharing our own.
What is it really like to be you right now? I am asking and listening.
As we lead others during this time and in the future, my hope is that we all commit to being thoughtfully curious by asking others what it is like to be them, to listen with our ears, and receive what they share with our hearts when they answer. Are you willing to listen for the story? I hope so.
Essay Two, Part Two in a Series by Peter Bailey, Adrienne Jordan, and Kristin Jonason at The Prouty Project.
Read the Essays from Part One Here: